Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Failure and Neglect

Posted by Neal on December 13, 2007

Arnold Zwicky gets annoyed when readers of Language Log email him to tell him all the things he should have mentioned in a particular post. Here’s what he says about this kind of email:

There are three main variants:

NEG: You didn’t mention X.
FAIL: You failed to mention X.
NEGLECT: You neglected to mention X.

In my understanding of things, these three are on an increasing scale of implied responsibility on my part, and hence culpability on my part. … The FAIL variant conveys…, to my mind anyway, that I should have mentioned X. Not mentioning X is … a failure on my part.

It’s true that fail often has strong negative connotations, and undoubtedly at least some of those who write to Zwicky that he “failed” to mention something do intend it as an admonition. However, probably at least some of these writers are not intending to pass judgment, and instead are using fail as a verb with a raised subject.

Before I say more about raised subjects, I’d better recap some of my last post, where I talked about verbs with raised direct objects. Some verbs, for example order or expect, call for a noun phrase (NP) and then an infinitive to follow them: order/expect NP to VP. The NP acts syntactically as the direct object of order/expect: It has to have accusative case (I ordered/expected him to go, but not *I ordered/expected he to go); and you can make it the subject in a passive sentence (He was ordered to go). Semantically, however, the NP is more connected to the infinitive. One type of evidence (among others) for this claim is that when the verb in the infinitive takes an unusual subject, that’s the kind of direct object order/expect takes. For example, I ordered/expected it to rain and I ordered/expected there to be a party are OK because rain and existential be can take it and there (respectively) as subjects. *I ordered/expected there to read a book, on the other hand, is ungrammatical, because read a book can’t take there as a subject.

In the same way, a raised subject is syntactically the subject of one verb, but semantically linked to that verb’s infinitival complement. The canonical example is seem, as in:

The clock seems to be broken.

The clock is syntactically the subject of seems, but there’s nothing it’s doing that constitutes seeming; semantically it goes with be broken. And to use the same kind of test as with object-raising verbs, seem can have weird subjects like dummy it and there only when they’re appropriate for its infinitive complement. It seems to be raining and There seems to be a party, yes; *There seems to read a book, no.

With that in mind, consider these sentences with fail:

Although May is usually a good month for sales in Reynosa, especially along the Hidalgo pedestrian mall, this year there failed to be a recovery in commercial transactions, Jasso stated.

As usual, it failed to snow for Christmas in our neighborhood.

I lost 70 cows last year because it failed to rain for the previous four years.

There’s still an aura of negativity in these sentences. Even though no one is being blamed, fail is used to talk about unfortunate situations. But even this isn’t a requirement. Look at this sentence, with fail used to convey approval:

Aside from the lack of multiplayer, this game fails to do anything wrong and will leave you playing for hours trying to see everything the game has to offer…. (link)

Zwicky is well aware of verbs with raised subjects, of course. In fact, I’d say that’s probably why he ranks the “fail” emails below the “neglect” ones in offensiveness. Here’s what he says about the latter group:

The NEGLECT variant, to my mind, is like the FAIL variant, but adds the suggestion that I knew about X and knew that X was relevant, but nevertheless, perversely, didn’t mention X.

A writer who says “you failed to mention” may not be assigning any blame (i.e., may be using fail in its subject-raising guise); may indeed be assigning blame; or may be assigning blame but in a way that allows deniability should he or she be called on it. A writer who says “you neglected to mention”, on the other hand, is definitely putting some responsibility on you. The subject of neglect isn’t raised from the infinitive that follows it. As evidence, I was going to say that you can’t use inanimate subjects with neglect, but I did some searching and found sentences like The machine neglected to tally absentee ballots in a very close race. My impression of these is that the speaker is attributing humanlike qualities to the machine. Sentences like this one, however, strike me as very odd:

However, the weather neglected to cooperate…. (link)

So not just any inanimate subject works with neglect, and expletive subjects are right out:

*It neglected to rain.
*There neglected to be any improvement.

The subject of neglect belongs to neglect itself, which specifies that the subject had the power to perform the action named by the inifinitive, and chose not to, or carelessly forgot.

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